By Tom Withers | Associated Press
CLEVELAND — Didi Gregorius, following in the October footprints left by Derek Jeter, homered twice off Corey Kluber as the New York Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians 5-2 in Game 5 on Wednesday night to complete their comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the Division Series and dethrone the AL champions.
These bend-but-don’t-break Yankees staved off elimination for the fourth time in this postseason and advanced to play the Houston Astros in the AL Championship Series starting Friday at Minute Maid Park.
“It’s just our time,” starter CC Sabathia said.
The AL West champion Astros, led by 5-foot-6 dynamo and MVP candidate Jose Altuve, went 5-2 against the wild-card winners this season.
After winning twice in New York, manager Joe Girardi and the Yankees — with little offensive help from rookie star Aaron Judge — came into Progressive Field and finished off the Indians, who won 102 games during the regular season, ripped off a historic 22-game winning streak and were favored to get back to the World Series after losing in seven games a year ago to the Chicago Cubs.
Cleveland’s Series drought turns 70 next year — baseball’s longest dry spell.
The Indians closed to 3-2 in the fifth against Sabathia before David Robertson pitched 2 2/3 hitless innings for the win. Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, who faced Cleveland in last year’s spine-tingling World Series and signed an $86 million free agent contract in December, worked two innings for the save.
Chapman went to the mound with a three-run lead in the ninth after Brett Gardner battled Cody Allen for 12 pitches before hitting an RBI single, with New York’s fifth run scoring when Todd Frazier raced home on right fielder Jay Bruce’s throwing error.
Gardner’s gritty at-bat was symbolic of these Yankees. They wouldn’t give in.
“We can win a lot of different ways,” Gardner said.
When Austin Jackson was called out on strikes to end it, the Yankees rushed to the mound to celebrate with a wide-eyed Chapman. Girardi broke into a huge smile and hugged his coaches.
These baby Bronx Bombers became the 10th team to overcome a 2-0 deficit to win a best-of-five playoff series. New York also did it in 2001, rallying to beat Oakland — a series remembered for Jeter’s backhand flip to home plate.
Gregorius, who took over at shortstop following Jeter’s retirement after the 2014 season, hit a solo homer in the first off Kluber and added a two-run shot in the third off Cleveland’s ace, who didn’t look like himself during either start in this series.
One win shy of a Series title last year, the Indians had only one goal in mind in 2017.
They came up short again, and have now lost six consecutive games with a chance to clinch a postseason series dating to last year’s World Series, when they squandered a 3-1 lead to the Cubs.
Cleveland is the first team in history to blow a two-game series lead in consecutive postseasons.
Everything was set up for the Indians: Kluber on the mound, Game 5 at home, sensational setup man Andrew Miller rested.
The Yankees, though, wouldn’t be denied. They battled back from a 3-0 deficit in the first inning of their wild-card game against Minnesota and then had to overcome a crushing loss in Game 2, when Girardi’s decision not to challenge a hit batter drew heavy criticism and possibly cost New York during in a 9-8 loss in 13 innings.
But these young Yankees, who are ahead of schedule to be contenders, displayed pinstriped pride.
“This team has never stopped fighting and never stopped believing,” Girardi said before Game 5. “That’s the mark of a very good team. They know how to persevere and continue to grind out everything, whether it’s an at-bat or it’s on the other side, you’re facing a batter, how you grind it out.”
The Yankees did it without much help from Judge, who struck out four times in Game 5, and went 1 for 20 (.050) in the series with 16 strikeouts.
But the 6-foot-7 rookie might have saved New York’s season in Game 3, when he reached above the right-field wall to rob Francisco Lindor of a two-run homer in a 1-0 win.
Kluber was one of baseball’s most consistent pitchers all season, winning 18 games and leading the AL with a 2.25 ERA. He’s a favorite to win his second Cy Young Award.
However, October has been cruel to the right-hander. He allowed nine runs, including four homers, over 6 1/3 innings in two postseason starts, hardly what he or the Indians expected.
Gregorius came in batting just .077 (1 for 13) in the series and only .133 (2 of 15) in his career against Kluber before tagging the right-hander for two homers in the first three innings.
The 27-year-old with the easy smile and sweet swing gave the Yankees a 3-0 lead in the third, pulling an 0-1 pitch into the lower deck in right. Gregorius set a franchise record for home runs in a season by a shortstop with 25, one more than Jeter hit in 1999 when No. 2 led the Yankees to a second straight World Series title.
Just as in Game 2, Kluber didn’t get out of the first unscathed.
Gregorius got New York off to an ideal start, homering with two outs in the first when Kluber grooved a fastball. The shot deep into the seats in right raised the anxiety level to an already jittery Cleveland crowd fearing the worst.
A few hours later, those fears were realized.
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